Matthew Arnold, the famous Victorian poet and critic, during his stint as a school inspector, wrote to a friend after a tour in 1848, lamenting over the state of the educational system that had repudiated the old and was yet unwilling and unequipped to absorb the new. Nothing fits this scenario better in our higher education system than our elusive quest for equity while at the same time maintaining our anxiety for outcome-driven education. One of the key parameters of equity in our higher education institutions rests on the twin objectives of ensuring access to institutions by the socially backward sections through reservation of seats and then to augment that inclusion by offering scholarships under various categories to partly buffer the cost of education entailed due to payment of fees, transportation costs, etc.

However, the outcomes of social backwardness are far too deep to be countered by such measures since a very common experience among the stakeholders in higher education is the poor course completion ratio of students hailing from the socially challenged sections. With much of the stress focused on their institutional inclusion, they are mostly left to fend for themselves in the matter of continuance. Curricular complexities, poor exposure to co-curricula developments, lack of personalized attention and mentoring are the primary reasons why the socially challenged pupils find themselves out of depths while exposed to the same curricula as the socially privileged.

Admittedly, this aspect of lack of equity is too deep-seated to be corrected soon. However, with the focus of higher education shifting towards outcomebased instruction, it goes without saying that the socially challenged sections of the students will be at the receiving end of a system that is increasingly turning quantitative. In an accreditation atmosphere where grants are inextricably linked to concrete institutional outcomes, it is only a matter of time before institutions junk their focus on equity and concentrate on parameters which would ensure them higher performance grants. It would be harsh for millions struggling for an equitable educational set-up to suddenly find that the institutional focus on them has been sacrificed at the altar of the ‘performance grant mammon’.

Alarming data published by the Ministry of Human Resource Development recently seems to suggest that equity in higher education should focus more on continuance than on inclusion. The data reveals that out of 2461 students who dropped out from Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in the last two years, 371 were from the Scheduled Castes (SC), 199 from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 601 from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In case of Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), out of 99 students who dropped out, 14 belonged to the SC category, 21 from the ST and 27 from OBC. Though preadmission counselling for correct choice of subjects, specialized mentoring and peer-assisted learning in institutions and a selfpaced curricula can go a long way in decreasing this tendency of dropouts, it has to be admitted that poor instructional atmosphere at the school education level can hardly be corrected with these in-house mechanisms in higher education institutions.

Surprisingly, very few educational documents at the government level in independent India have attempted to trace the quality of Indian education uninterruptedly from the primary school to the university. With recommendations for remedies segregated between school education and higher education, it was a foregone conclusion that the higher education in India has to bear the brunt of a compromised school set-up. In a country with 52 state sanctioned education boards, two national level education boards, the CISCE and CBSE and the National Institute of Open Schooling catering to over 25.3 crore students in 15.3 lakh schools, ensuring quality school education is an uphill task.

This is all the more compounded by the fact that Education is placed in the Concurrent List of our Constitution with the central and state governments having equal say in the framing of policy and implementation. Since the struggle in the school education sector is still firmly in the domain of attaining universal enrolment and retention, achieving uniform quality is a long way off. Incidentally, the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) which was set up in 2008-2009 to pool and streamline data relating to secondary education across the country for effective policy, is yet to evolve into a credible school education management format largely due to erroneous and slow data collection and collation and lack of audit trail of data collected across the country.

This has rendered efforts to improve the quality of school education virtually ineffective. This scenario is already giving rise to another consequence which shall render all-round equity in higher education more difficult to achieve. Schools which are situated in urban areas and are privately funded are in a better position to ensure quality than the ones that are funded by the government. Data on higher education enrolment clearly points to an urban bias in the background of entrants to higher educational institutions although over 87 per cent of schools nationally are located in rural areas.. Nationally, our higher education is beginning to show strains of absorbing an ever-increasing population of school pass-outs who lack the basic abilities.

Paradoxically enough, higher education in India is under an ever-increasing pressure to perform to international standards and ensure quality education that is based primarily on the outcome of the education process. Higher education outcome measurement indices are predominantly numerical and quantity-driven internationally. Innovation is quantified through patents filed and received and the power of the alumni is measured in the millions that the alumni invests in their parent institutions as donations. Such peculiarities of measuring outcomes are driven by international considerations which do not focus on socio-economic equity of the reach and access of higher education.

Clearly, in the era of radical sectoral changes and the anxiety for quality in higher education, the most vulnerable are the socio-economically challenged people, many of whom happen to be first generation learners. While reservation of seats may ensure their enrolment in higher educational institutions, very little in terms of policy has gone into ensuring that such sections of the student population experience effective adjustment and fruitful continuance in their institutions. Peer pressure, lack of sympathetic support among the teaching community and unnecessary stress on them to perform as per preconceived parameters of excellence can push such minds to depression or even suicides.

The Draft Education Policy, currently in circulation, offers very little in terms of concrete proposals to take on board such challenged sections of the society in our pursuit of excellence in higher education. With over half of the national student population hailing from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, this is an area we cannot afford to ignore. Perhaps the best course of action for the present would be to temper our search for excellence in terms of western parameters of judgment, and infuse a sense of worth among the under-privileged higher education students by catering to their cognitive specialities and interests instead of forcing a rigidly structured curriculum that would have little meaning for them.

(The writer is Assistant Professor in English, Pritilata Waddedar Mahavidyalaya, Nadia in West Bengal)